Zoo docent takes care of visitors


By Kristen Roduner, Contributor

This special section of the Gateway, which features stories on UNO students and faculty who volunteer, was submitted by  the School of Communication’s “News Writing and Reporting” students, under the supervision of Professor Kevin Warneke.


When she isn’t teaching English at UNO, Maria Knudtson can be seen strolling Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium grounds, volunteering her valuable time.
Knudtson has been a docent at the zoo since 1990. As a docent, she educates the zoo’s guests about the animals and contributions of the zoo to research and conservation.

Keepers take care of the animals, Knudtson said, and docents take care of the public.

Knudtson said she never thought she would volunteer at the zoo because she isn’t an animal lover. But as a teacher and mother of small children, when the opportunity arose, she took it.

“It seemed like a natural fit,” she said.

Volunteering is a way of life for the Knudtson family, she said. She grew up volunteering, as have her children.

Knudtson can be seen  wandering zoo grounds, answering questions and working at the touch tank in the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium most Friday mornings. She sometimes speaks to 1,000 people a day.

Knudtson loves meeting new people and creating personal relationships with the animals. She enjoys playing with gorillas, orangutans and other animals through the glass while teaching visitors the importance of protecting them.

Kathy Vires, volunteer coordinator at the zoo, has been working with Knudtson since 1990. She said Knudtson is a good docent who is always energetic, motivated and full of ideas.

Some of Knudtson’s favorite memories were presenting at two Association of Zoo and Aquarium Docent conferences in 1992 and 2003. Knudtson said she enjoyed sharing her knowledge and meeting new people.

Knudtson knows she is making a difference, whether big or small, people have a great time at the zoo and she is a part of it.

Knudtson said she is passionate about the docent program because the program is so broad and the people are dedicated. The program allows its volunteers to work with their skills and strengths.

There are about 1,000 volunteers at the zoo, Vires said. Individuals wanting to volunteer at the zoo can contact Vires at OmahaZoo.com to begin the application and interview process.

The key to finding a volunteering match, Knudtson said, is to find a place where your skills are valued.

“Everyone has something to give,” Knudtson said.